Debates in the ISA on the internal regime – Some points on building and leadership (Eric B)

We publish in what follows 3 documents from the internal debates in the ISA that ultimately led to the split of June 2021. These documents address the issues around the building of the international leadership, democratic centralism and party culture. 
The first document, “Building a Bolshevik leadership and cadre for the new organization” was written by the Greek EC and was probably the first document that ignited the multiple internal debates. In that way we think it is an important document for somebody to understand the context of the disagreements that led to the split.
Problems inside the leadership of the ISA emerged very soon after the split with the CWI. But they were significantly exacerbated by the refusal of the majority to have an open-minded (and serious in our opinion) approach in relation to the differences that would unavoidably emerge. 
In the case of the document “Building a Bolshevik leadership” the intention of the Greek EC to have this discussed as a contribution to the pre-congress discussion (the founding congress took place in January 2020) was essentially blocked by the fulltimers’ group (called “subcommission of the International Executive”). This was not done by formal refusal, but through exerting huge pressure to not circulate the document – the Greek EC retreated in order to avoid polarization in the congress.  This however, in itself was a shocking and revealing experience. It revealed the methods of the majority and the key leaders of the ISA in the handling of different opinions. 
The document, written in the beginning of January, was in the end circulated in April.
The document “Some points on building and leadership” (published below) was the answer of the Majority of the fulltimers’ subcommission to the Greek EC, written by Eric Byl (Belgium). 
The document “Democratic centralism and party culture for the 2020’s” was written around the same period by comrades Rob Mac Donald and Vladimir Bortum from the Spanish State and also represents a critical approach to the majority view on democratic centralism.
All 3 documents were published in the internal international members bulletin in April 2020.
This discussion around democratic centralism is also related to the documents produced 1 year later on “federalism” (see Majority positions here and Minority positions here).

Some points on building and leadership


The world congress was a tremendous achievement. It showed an international reassessing itself collectively. How come? Primarily, no doubt, because of the tremendous mood, movements and revolts with revolutionary characteristics which spread from continent to continent in the second half of 2019. But also because the crisis and split in the CWI represented a wakeup call which many comrades responded to in an exemplary manner.

The broad, new collective leadership of ISA, while still in a process of formation, responded to the challenges faced accordingly. Look at the number of comrades (30+!) who made high quality lead-offs and sum ups at the World Congress. Look at the confident interventions of a similar quality made in discussions throughout the week. Look at the excellent and detailed reports presented, including on the finances of the international. Look at the balanced attention paid to smaller, sometimes still embryonic, and bigger sections, to difficulties and complications as well as opportunities, to viewing the consciousness of different layers and movements taking place as they are and not only as we would wish them to be.

This reflects, in part, the inheritance and further elaboration of the best approach and methods of the CWI tradition, which helped us to win the overall majority of the international during the faction fight. But approach and method do not stand on their own, they are embedded in politics. The fact that our politics stand on firm ground, recognizing difficulties while also articulating the promising opportunities inherent in the situation, ultimately explains our ability to develop a healthy approach and method.

The former IS majority, on the other hand, exchanged our transitional approach for sectarian point scoring, refused the control of our democratic structures, dismissed the political level of the international and tore up our constitution. Why? In the main, because over the years they developed a conservative outlook based on the effects of the collapse of Stalinism, the historically low level of class struggle in Britain related to Thatcher’s counter-revolution and the complications in the extended international process of the formation and betrayals of new workers’ parties. They did talk about a bright future but were so blinded by demoralization and conservatism, that when new movements pointing to that future came into existence, they either pointed away from them, or intervened mainly in an abstract propagandistic way.

When part of the international leadership challenged them and the majority of the membership started to revolt, they did not correct their mistake but instead resorted to bureaucratic measures, illustrating what Trotsky meant by “from a scratch to the danger of gangrene” (1940).

Our conclusions for the building of ISA need continued discussions. The Greek EC resolution titled “Building a Bolshevik leadership…” makes several very good points and should be welcomed. Its main weakness however, is that it unfortunately only mentions the objective situation, and the leadership’s response to it in a passing manner (“leaving aside…”). In this sense, it reflects the danger of not appreciating the primacy of politics, and the objective situation, in the process of degeneration of our old international leadership.

The comrades write of “so many failures” and “so many degenerations”, referring to Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin, our former IS and the crisis of the leadership of the 4th international. As we know the degeneration of the Russian workers’ state and the victory of the bureaucratic counterrevolution was, first and foremost, related to the objective backwardness of society in Russia, the civil war and the intervention of the major imperialists amidst a growing isolation of the revolution on the international plane. We also know that the prewar Trotskyists were decapitated not only by the loss of Trotsky and many of his closest collaborators, but also because talented (Abram Leon!) and proletarian cadres (mineworker Leon Lesoil) perished in the Nazi concentration camps.

Why did so many fail or degenerate? Because they lacked correct ideas, were confronted with extremely difficult and complicated situations and/or failed to look beyond defeats. In each of the examples referred to there were also, against all odds, cadres and talented individuals capable of overcoming the difficulties and pointing a way forward out of crisis and degeneration: Trotsky and tens of thousands left oppositionists in Russia and internationally, Ted Grant and a handful of followers after WWII, Peter Taaffe and a few thousand cadres after 1992 and again the ISA  today.

While a leadership should recognize difficulties and complications, it is as crucial if not more so that leadership demonstrates ability to seize opportunities in difficult as well as more favourable objective situations. It must show a capacity to anticipate and deal with conjunctural fluctuations instead of being sidetracked by them. This most important requirement of leadership is unfortunately omitted by the comrades exactly at a time when the idea of a revolutionary international gains relevance and connects with the thinking of growing layers internationally.

We have to prepare our membership to seize opportunities while coping with a vast vacuum created by the walkout of the former IS majority. This left us with no central leadership, which has imposed upon us a certain degree of “federalism”, with no international center, the theft of our financial reserves, publications, and an undermining of the concept of leadership in general.

In the past few months, we started to remedy those weaknesses. Sections released key comrades to safeguard and rebuild the international on a healthy basis, our finances were rebuilt and restructured and we are successfully rebuilding our international publications. A broader International Committee was elected, which has already started to, and will continue to meet more regularly than its predecessor. The IC reflects the wealth present in the sections, whether bigger or smaller, expressed in the regional perspectives resolutions approved at Congress, and the beginning of regional coordination.

We have no IS anymore, but an understaffed team of full timers, living in different countries meeting weekly on social media and trying to physically meet monthly. This limits our capacity to react swiftly to events, complicates regular exchange and blurs the necessary division of labour among the international full-timers in the day to day follow up of the work of the international. It will take a few years but we intend to continue rebuilding an international center, staffed by a multinational team of comrades with the potential to become all-rounded, dedicated, politically and organizationally capable dynamic cadres, reflecting the age and gender diversity within the international.

While the Greek EC resolution makes many useful points about the quality required of international

cadre, in practice, the list of “tests” cited as necessary for international cadre, if rigidly implemented would point away from the burning need to accelerate the development of young cadre on an international level. While we should pay meticulous attention and aim to develop the quality of cadres involved, we know that none will come ready made. The building of a new younger, vibrant and centralized international and international leadership demands events and experience.

We will not simply be capable to go back to one residential center, as it will not be possible for all necessary cadre to move country in the short term, because of immigration laws and other factors. We might over time overcome this through supplementary regional or continental centers linked to the future international one.

Domination of the international (or its national sections) by 1-3 individuals, or by 1-3 sections or the concentration of too many responsibilities inside a leading group in the hands of 1-3 individuals should be avoided. However the only real and healthy way to do so is politically. The first four internationals were dominated by giants (Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky) and, in general, degeneration set in after their “domination” ended.

In the case of the Third International a three-person secretariat served as a key instrument and cover up for the degeneration. This illustrates once again that politics much more than constitutional or administrative rules are key in preventing degeneration. The CWI and its precursors were dominated by lesser but still exceptionally impressive individuals. The third international was also dominated by its Russian and German sections which both passed through the experiences of revolution and counter- revolution.

This question of dominance should not be addressed negatively by restricting very talented individuals or experienced sections in their contribution, but by stimulating their potential, digesting their experience and collectively gain from it while trying to create a broader based leadership. We are already pointing in that direction by reducing the status of the international full-timers from IS to a sub- commission of the broader International Executive, which meets weekly on social media and physically every quarter.

Of course there has to be control and checks at all levels, as was done, for example, at the November 2018 IEC and then confirmed by many sections’ NCs and congresses including where the national leadership supported the minority faction. This requires active involvement in the life of the international, and cannot be done by retreating into inactivity or in the case of national section’s leadership, by retreating to a federalist approach.

Many comrades, including in the leadership, have learned painful lessons from our recent experience. The freedom to question and criticize has been obtained and will not easily be lost again. That has to be welcomed, but should also be done in a constructive, measured and responsible way. It is clear that the new international leadership cannot have an arrogant or top-down approach when addressing either section leaderships or any member, but the leadership, whether at branch, section or international level also has the right and the duty to intervene when it thinks mistakes are made, not in a bureaucratic, but again in a constructive, measured and responsible way.

Should we move in the direction of rotation in the more important positions in the sections and the leaderships? In the workplace there are two main ways to protect oneself against the sack. One is to render oneself indispensable, the other to politicize the workplace and build a layer of active militants. Once a position has been acquired by a comrade in a workplace and authority obtained, we would be very cautious to give that up because we realize how difficult, energy and time consuming it is to rebuild such position.

The same carefulness should apply to the party structures, with that difference that a position belongs to the party. In that sense we urge every comrade in a leading position to render themselves dispensable by recruiting and educating cadres capable of replacing and preferably overtaking them, not to themselves then abandon the work, but to shift to other important tasks. It is evident that this is easier to do at a more rank and file level than for the most important national and international responsibilities.

This is also crucial to avoid routinism and inject dynamism, to guarantee renewal and backup in case of illness. While we do not impose a strict age-limit, comrades should always be preparing younger comrades to take over because, in the end, age will weigh down on our sharpness and energy. The idea that one can stay a lifetime in the front line is mistaken, and it is part of the duty of leadership to take that in account and raise it in time in a constructive and sensitive way with older comrades.

Can sections make their own decisions without having to wait for the international? And is this a question of autonomy of the sections? We are part of a revolutionary world party, the ISA, composed of national or regional sections. The international leadership is elected by our highest body, our World Congress, not only to coordinate, but to lead. It should try to digest the many national and regional experiences, grasp what is taking place and elaborate, in collaboration with the sections’ leaderships, the headlines of our common, democratically centralized policies.

The national leaderships should consider the interest of the whole international when taking decisions and when they feel something might be controversial they should raise it timely and openly so that we can have as full and informed a discussion as possible. The international leadership should not intervene in sections bypassing the elected bodies or work behind their backs as it is up to the national leaderships to structure national debates in an open and organized way, but this works also the other way around. The international leadership has to be able to structure and organize debates on an international level and the sections’ leaderships should also respect that.

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